Tag: Philosophy

Machiavelli’s Mistake: Why Good Laws Are No Substitute For Good Citizens

A summary of Samuel Bowles' lecture series entitled “Machiavelli's Mistake” at the Santa Fe Institute.

1. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests

The classical thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas, Rousseau, and Burke recognized the cultivation of civic virtue not only as the test of good governance, but also as its essential foundation. Machiavelli and Hobbes broke with this Aristotelian tradition.

Readers of Machiavelli's Discourses learned that “all men are wicked … hunger makes them industrious, laws make them good.” Adam Smith's invisible hand provided a decentralized model for how this constitutional alchemy might be accomplished. Good institutions thus came to displace good citizens as the sine qua non of good government. Prices would do the work of morals.

This classical economists approach – now the canonical model of policy-making in economics– now does not ignore moral behavior, but instead assumes it to be unaffected by incentive-based policies designed to harness self-interest. Along with civic virtue, explicit incentives and constraints could thus contribute additively to good government. The classical writers did not worry that laws designed to induce “wicked” citizens to act as if they were good might induce even the good to act as if they were wicked.

They should have worried. Experimental and other evidence show that while most individuals are far from wicked, treating people as if they were often crowds out the common generous, ethical, and reciprocal behaviors upon which the functioning of modern liberal democratic societies depend.

2. Is liberalism a parasite on tradition?

The parasitic liberalism thesis holds that markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals depend on family-based, religious and other traditional social norms that are endangered by these very institutions. Liberal society thus fails Rawls’ test of “stability:” it does not “generate its own supportive moral attitudes.” Experimental evidence presented in Lecture I, provides support for the idea. I represent the thesis in a model of the dynamics of institutional and cultural change, indicating the conditions under which the cultural dynamic of liberal society leads to economic dysfunction, instability and eventually collapse. I then provide surprising cross-cultural evidence that is inconsistent with the implications of the model.

Liberal societies are distinctive in their civic cultures, exhibiting levels of generosity, fairmindedness, and civic involvement that distinguish them from non-liberal societies. The parasitic liberalism thesis fails not because it misunderstands the cultural consequences of markets, but rather because it overrates the benign contribution of tradition to the moral underpinnings of liberal institutions, and underrates the contribution of the liberal state and other non-market aspects of the liberal social order to the flourishing of these civic virtues.

3. Machiavelli ‘s Mistake: Do good fences make good (enough) neighbours?

Two empirical puzzles show that some incentives work almost exactly as conventional economic theory predicts while others backfire. Under what conditions, then, can prices do the work of morals. Unraveling these puzzles and answering this question requires an understanding of the causal mechanisms by which material incentives crowd out moral motives. Experimental and other evidence suggests that explicit incentives and social motivations may be less than additive due to individual desires for autonomy, self esteem and fairness, which may be compromised by incentives. The material incentives favored by economists can also crowd out institutions that provide at least second best governance of social dilemmas.

How should a sophisticated hypothetical social engineer – that is, one who is aware of the motivational and institutional crowding out problem – design policies and institutions? Three results are demonstrated. First the optimal use of incentives may be either greater or less in the presence of motivational crowding out compared to a case where it is absent. Second, cultural market failures are pervasive, and result in overuse of markets even under ideal conditions for (Coasean) bargaining in the design of property rights and other institutions. Finally, a new second best theorem is proposed: the better definition of property rights and other policies considered by economists to improve incentives may degrade economic performance when they crowd out ethical motivations and alternative governance institutions.

Niccolò Machiavelli and the Four Princes of Pragmatism

To top off the course The Moral Leader, Professor Badaracco's students dissect Niccolo Machiavelli's chilling classic The Prince.

“You may think that's an odd place to end what is essentially a business ethics elective,” Badaracco acknowledged with a smile.

Students talk about what Machiavelli has to say on one crucial key to leadership: leading in the world as it is.

Four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in their discussion—though there are at least a hundred different readings of Machiavelli for scholars who truly delve into the literature, Badaracco points out.

Version 1: “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It's “a scholar's dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2: “Now wait a minute. There's some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. … To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3: Other students believe the book is still around because it's so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it's quite interesting what isn't in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There's nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You're out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4: A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco's mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it's not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you're going to make progress in the world you've got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.”

Students who claim the fourth Prince, he said, believe that if they're going to make a difference, it's got to be in that world, “not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”

Bertrand Russell: On Avoiding Foolish Opinions

bertrand russell avoiding foolish opinion

We'd all like to avoid folly, wouldn't we?

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance. And it doesn't take a genius. Only a few simple ideas.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) offers some advice, which will not keep us from all error but will help us navigate away from obvious error.

On Avoiding Foolish Opinions

Via The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell:

If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don't is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetizing diet. Aristotle, however, was less cautious. Ancient and medieval authors knew all about unicorns and salamanders; not one of them thought it necessary to avoid dogmatic statements about them because he had never seen one of them.

Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias.

If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own. When I was young, I lived much outside my own country in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. I found this very profitable in diminishing the intensity of insular prejudice. If you cannot travel, seek out people with whom you disagree, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is not yours. If the people and the newspaper seem mad, perverse, and wicked, remind yourself that you seem so to them. In this opinion both parties may be right, but they cannot both be wrong. This reflection should generate a certain caution.

Becoming aware of foreign customs, however, does not always have a beneficial effect. In the seventeenth century, when the Manchus conquered China, it was the custom among the Chinese for the women to have small feet, and among the Manchus for the men to wear-pigtails. Instead of each dropping their own foolish custom, they each adopted the foolish custom of the other, and the Chinese continued to wear pigtails until they shook off the dominion of the Manchus in the revolution of 1911.

For those who have enough psychological imagination, it is a good plan to imagine an argument with a person having a different bias. This has one advantage, and only one, as compared with actual conversation with opponents; this one advantage is that the method is not subject to the same limitations of time or space. Mahatma Gandhi deplores railways and steamboats and machinery; he would like to undo the whole of the industrial revolution. You may never have an opportunity of actually meeting any one who holds this opinion, because in Western countries most people take the advantage of modern technique for granted. But if you want to make sure that you are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, you will find it a good plan to test the arguments that occur to you by considering what Gandhi might say in refutation of them. I have sometimes been led actually to change my mind as a result of this kind of imaginary dialogue, and, short of this, I have frequently found myself growing less dogmatic and cocksure through realizing the possible reasonableness of a hypothetical opponent.

Be very wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem. Both men and women, nine times out of ten, are firmly convinced of the superior excellence of their own sex. There is abundant evidence on both sides. If you are a man, you can point out that most poets and men of science are male; if you are a woman, you can retort that so are most criminals. The question is inherently insoluble, but self esteem conceals this from most people. We are all, whatever part of the world we come from, persuaded that our own nation is superior to all others. Seeing that each nation has its characteristic merits and demerits, we adjust our standard of values so as to make out that the merits possessed by our nation are the really important ones, while its demerits are comparatively trivial. Here, again, the rational man will admit that the question is one to which there is no demonstrably right answer. It is more difficult to deal with the self esteem of man as man, because we cannot argue out the matter with some non-human mind. The only way I know of dealing with this general human conceit is to remind ourselves that man is a brief episode in the life of a small planet in a little corner of the universe, and that, for aught we know, other parts of the cosmos may contain beings as superior to ourselves as we are to jellyfish.

Still curious? Check out Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching.